Opinions - 29.09.2017 - 00:00 

Diverse facts, ignorance and regulation

When dealing with new technologies and complex environmental problems, a situation arises in which hardly anyone is able to provide reliable facts about potential developments and risks. By Monika Kurath.

29 September 2017. The question of facts and their diversity is currently widely discussed in the media. A crisis of truth has been declared and the concept of "alternative facts" is understood as a phenomenon arising from the new US administration. In part, the "diversity of facts" is generally linked to populism . It is also partially associated with the commercialisation of science in a neoliberal model of thought.

The diversity of facts is also reflected in the social negotiation of environmental problems and new technologies, such as climate change, nanotechnology and digitalisation. In this context, it has the unfortunate consequence of making legal regulation barely possible. Thus, nanotechnology is hardly regulated by law in spite of a large number of toxicological studies which point to a potential hazard. This is particularly striking in the EU, as the precautionary principle provides an instrument that allows for regulatory action, even if a threat is only suspected.

Diversity of facts vs alternative facts

As is shown in the case of nanotechnology, in discussions about new technologies and changes in the environment, different opinions and interpretations are introduced, which are conveyed by various parties as "facts". However, unlike the "alternative facts" of populism, the diversity of the facts regarding new technologies and environmental problems seems to arise from the ignorance associated with technologies and environmental problems. In earlier technological and environmental discourses, ignorance describes the invisible, unintentional, and unrecognized action and decision-making sequences that are rarely resolved over time, which are frequently referred to as "residual risk".

Three dimensions of ignorance

Sociology distinguishes between three dimensions of ignorance: 1) the unintentional or the intended, 2) the known or the unrecognized, and 3) the temporary "not-yet-knowledge" or the basically non-resolvable ignorance. Desired and known ignorance describe the classic areas of risk research. For example, a genetic test reveals the risk of a particular disease. Or ignorance can be limited to a specific research question. With targeted research, an answer can be found and the risk can be calculated. In both cases, facts are produced that are scientifically disputable, but they can generally be used as a basis for decision-making in regulatory policy.

The situation is different in the case of unintentional, unrecognized and non-resolvable ignorance. It is unclear which knowledge has to be produced in order to solve knowledge gaps, who has the expertise to produce this knowledge, and who bears the responsibility for its consequences.

Regulation of new technologies

Conclusion: When dealing with new technologies and complex environmental problems, a situation arises in which hardly anyone is able to provide reliable facts about potential developments and risks. However, legal regulation depends on reliable knowledge. As a result, new technologies and complex environmental problems can hardly be regulated by law. Thus society is lacking an important instrument of control for the protection of public health and the environment. The precautionary principle enshrined in European environmental law and its consistent implementation could provide a way out here. This makes legal regulation possible despite the absence of assured facts.

Monika Kurath is a research associate at the ETH Zurich. She is a private lecturer in science and technology research at the University of Vienna and Director of Research & Faculty at the University of St.Gallen.

Picture: photocase / suze

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